Monday, December 29, 2014

Psychobabble’s 2015 Wish List

Four years ago, I posted my 2011 wish list here on Psychobabble. A couple of these indulgent dreams came true, such as the long-awaited release of Island of Lost Souls on DVD and the even longer awaited release of the deleted scenes from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. That the majority of those wishes I made in 2010 did not come to pass has done nothing to kill my lovely, lovely dreams for 2015. Here are some things I’m hoping will exist next year, some far-fetched, some within the realm of possibility. 

1. E.C. Horror Comics Reprints by a Publisher Other than Dark Horse

OK, so it is cool that the intermittent anthologizing of E.C.’s infamous horror comics of the fifties has not croaked despite "The E.C. Archives" changing publishers several times, but what began with a fairly acceptable level of digital meddling by Gemstone Publishing in 2006 has gotten way out of hand in the hands of Dark Horse. Carlos Badilla has recolored these classic comics with a heavy hand that leaves them unacceptably modern and soulless. I would love to see a company like IDW, which does not screw with original coloring whatsoever and even prints on textural, comic-style stock (as opposed to Dark Horse’s glossy pages), tear the property out of Dark Horse’s greasy hooves. As Dark Horse has more E.C. anthologies on tap for 2015, I understand that this is one of the most unlikely wishes on this list, but it’s no more out there than my wish to breathe underwater, which I’m also hoping will come true next year. Keep your webbed fingers crossed.

2. Beatles Singles Box

From the far-fetched wish to the inevitable one, Capitol/UMe has been giving us so much superior-quality Beatles long-playing vinyl over the past couple of years that I’d wager the probability of them rereleasing the short-playing records is pretty probable. The original picture sleeves and a neat classic 45s carry-case are givens. The only stumbling box might be a relative lack of interest in singles, but if R.E.M. and The Turtles can get the singles box treatment, I don’t see how the most popular group in the galaxy would get passed up. I do think we’ll have to wait until after Capitol/UMe reissues The Beatles’ U.S. albums on vinyl (likely with the original bad echo and bad duophonic mixes the recent CD box lacked), but can that be far away?

3. Rolling Stones in Mono

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Ten Terrifying Monster Toys That Time Forgot!

The holidays are a time when the little ones rub the sleep from their eyes before the crack of dawn to scamper down the stairs to see what goodies Santa left under the tree. Is it a train for Johnny? Or maybe a dolly for Suzy? Or maybe it’s a galactic monstrosity so intent on ripping Johnny’s throat out that it has an extra mouth inside of its mouth. Or perhaps it’s a gelatinous millipede Suzy can create in her very own mad laboratory. Along with the usual Star Wars and Batman merchandise, terrifying toys that appealed to my love of monsters terrorized my own childhood. Here are ten of the most terrifying.

1. Mego Mad Monsters (1973)

We begin our discussion of monster toys as all discussions of monsters must begin: with Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster, the Wolf Man, and the Mummy. In 1973, Mego, the company that totally dominated the pre-Star Wars toy market, built on the success of its superhero figures with ones celebrating Universal’s classic monsters. And these were not just any monsters; they were “mad”, possibly because they looked kind of crappy, at least compared to the similar dolls Remco would produce seven years later. While Remco’s line would be nicely molded to capture the visages of Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and Lon Chaneys Sr. and Jr., Mego’s line was a bit generic. Dracula wore an outfit that looked more befitting Mayor McCheese than the Prince of Darkness, and the Frankenstein Monster looked a bit like he had gas. The Wolfman was pretty cool though, with its wolfier head than that of the Chaney-style werewolf. The only other creature in the line was a fairly convincing Mummy. Mego’s creeps got a really cool accessory with the Mad Monster Castle Playset, sort of a big version of Remco’s little carrying case (more on that to come). This one had a working drawbridge and gruesome interior artwork depicting decapitated heads in mayonnaise jars. A fresh generation of serial killers followed.

2. The Game of Jaws (1975)

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Review: The Criterion Edition of 'Safe'

The late eighties/early nineties was a boom time for young visionary directors, but your Steven Soderbergs and your Quentin Tarantinos and even your Lars Von Triers had nothing on Todd Haynes. His first film starred a Barbie and Ken doll as Karen and Richard Carpenter. Despite the silly premise and the offensive blandness of The Carpenters’ music, Superstar not only wasn’t a joke but it was legitimately disturbing, depressing, and moving. His second film, Poison, fell in line with his AIDS-awareness activism but did so with fearless originality, interpreting the writings of Jean Genet as a shuffled up portmanteau of horror, documentary, and prison mini-movies. Haynes’s activism became a lightning rod for some viewers, particularly those in the LGBT community, when he made his next and biggest budget (still under a million dollars) film to date. Because Safe dealt with disease, and featured implicit and explicit references to AIDS, other activists felt Haynes was selling out by making his main character a woman and her illness something other than AIDS.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Review: 'Terry O’Neill’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Album'

Terry O’Neill photographed some of the most monumental movers and shakers of the twentieth century: JFK, Churchill, Mandella, Blair. That’s very nice for him, but what about the people who made us move and shake? Well, stand back, because this cat has shot The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Ray Davies, Led Zeppelin, Elvises Presley and Costello, Chuck Berry, Diana Ross, Janis Joplin, Springsteen, Bowie… I think you get the picture. You can get a slew of them in a new A (for AC/DC) to Z (for Zeppelin) collection of his most iconic and rarest pictures called Terry O’Neill’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Album.

That title is actually slightly misleading because quite a few of the stars between its covers have nothing to do with rocking or rolling (there’s a big spread on Sinatra, who hated the genre). Don’t get too hung up on that because there’s plenty that fits the bill from O’Neill’s earliest swinging snaps of the Fabs, The Dave Clark Five, The Animals, and some very, very young Stones through relatively recent artists such as Blur and Amy Winehouse. She’s the most recent one in the lot because O’Neill admits in his introduction that no one since her has had enough star power to ensnare his interest (I see what he means).

The interesting thing about O’Neill’s work is the way it often subverts our expectations. He’s the one who shot that famous picture of Ozzy in which the evil one looks like he just paid his one hundred bucks at Glamour Shots. He made Liza Minnelli look like Jagger. He made ol’ Lucifer Lips look like a cuddly bear all wrapped up in his fur-lined anorak. Ringo appears to be the lead Beatles as he leaps over the rest of the band in an extraordinary action shot I’d never seen before. He filmed hellion Marc Bolan in a very moving embrace with his infant son.

At other times, O’Neill captured the artists just as we expect them to be, whether it’s Sir Elton posing in his giant wardrobe of outrageous gear or Alice Cooper subverting that Bolan shot hilariously by applying fright makeup to a sleeping baby. Really, there is no unifying style or approach to perceive among the mass of photos in Terry O’Neill’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Album. Color or black and white, candid or staged, funny or po-faced, action-packed or serene, bizarrely normal or normally bizarre, the photos in this big, big, big book really have one thing in common: big, big, big music stardom.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Review: 'Rock Covers'

I used to keep a copy of Michael Ochs’s 1000 Record Covers on my desk. It was a handy reference for cool album art and fit perfectly next to my little dictionary and thesaurus. One thing the 5.5-inch x 7.5-inch book did not do was provide an accurate representation of the scale and detail of those covers. That kind of thing may have cut the mustard during the CD age when we forgot what we were missing, but vinyl has now made a resounding comeback (do I need to refer you to the wild hype surrounding the release of the Beatles in Mono vinyl box a few months ago?). That means the 1-foot-square sleeve has too. For a better idea of how it feels to actually hold a copy of Here's Little Richard or Pet Sounds or Atom Heart Mother or Marquee Moon or Goo or The White Stripes in your hand, dig Busch, Kirby, and Wiedemann's Rock Covers. Like 1000 Record Covers, it is published by Taschen, but it probably won't fit on your desk. Just a half-inch shorter on both sides than your average LP jacket, Rock Covers is surely intended to provide an authentic experience even though every one of its artworks is not presented at full-page size. The editors also fill in a lot of Ochs's blind spots, giving much more space to punk, college, and alternative albums than Ochs did. Not only do we get some classic Vaughan Oliver sleeves but we get a short interview with the man himself, as well as others such as Henry Diltz and Black Crowe Chris Robinson.

That this is a great art book is a given since it contains so much great art. It does lose a few points for authenticity when compared to Ochs's book because everything in it is so straight-out-of-shrink-wrap clean. Ochs did not whitewash what goes down in a real record collection. You could tell his records were used, abused, bruised, deeply loved, and regularly rotated. I also like how he'd juxtapose sleeves that shared some sort of aesthetic trait. Busch, Kirby, and Wiedemann go for straight alphabetical order. Still, if it's between tiny, damaged images and great, big, unblemished ones, I admit size matters. Rock Covers comes out on top.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Warner Issue Replacement Discs to Reinstate Missing Footage from "Batman: The Complete Television Series"

My recent review of Warner Bros. Batman: The Complete Television Series was mostly glowing, though I did mention issues with a couple of episodes that are missing brief shots. On Tuesday, Warner Bros. addressed these minor issues with the following statement announcing a disc replacement program (interestingly, the bonus discs will also include a little new bonus content):

"Warner Bros. Home Entertainment (WBHE) will provide fans with replacement discs and digital repairs to the few minor technical issues identified in its recent release of Batman: The Complete Television Series.

Amounting to less than five minutes of footage within the 50-plus hours of entertainment, the issues encompass one 60-second dropped scene in the episode entitled "Marsha's Scheme of Diamonds"; a brief piece of rarely-heard William Dozier narration that originally opened the pilot episode, "Hi Diddle Riddle"; and an assembly of villain tags from the end of assorted episodes.

"The restoration process of this footage - spanning 48 years and two major studios - has been a super heroic task, and we deeply regret even the smallest of glitches occurring in that process," said Rosemary Markson, Senior Vice President, TV Brand Management & Retail Marketing, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment. "We recognize our obligation to the fans of this landmark series, and we have worked diligently to identify all issues and provide resolutions as quickly as possible."

To resolve these issues for consumers purchasing Batman: The Complete Television Series, WBHE will make available complete replacement discs for the discs that originally included the episodes "Marsha's Scheme of Diamonds" and "Hi Diddle Riddle." The villain tags will be re-issued as an assembled string on one of the aforementioned discs and, as an added bonus, WBHE has acquired rights and legal clearances to both a Bat-vehicle teaser that originally aired as part of the second season-opening "Shoot A Crooked Arrow" episode, and one of the original promotional tags that aired on the original showing of the "The Duo Defy" episode. Additionally, all fixes will be made to all Digital HD versions of Batman: The Complete Television Series.

To obtain the replacement discs, consumers who have purchased Batman: The Complete Television Series are directed to

Worldwide demand for the Limited Edition box set of Batman: The Complete Television Series has been tremendous, resulting in widespread retailer sellouts and rapidly dwindling inventories heading into the holiday season. To fulfill consumer interest, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment has announced a new streamlined Blu-ray™ box set that includes all 120 episodes and matching enhanced content from the limited edition set, but without the added premium items or Digital HD copy. Purchasers of this set will also need to utilize the customer service website to obtain replacement discs."

Review: 'Alice’s Wonderland: A Visual Journey through Lewis Carroll's Mad, Mad World'

In the introduction to her own Alice’s Wonderland: A Visual Journey through Lewis Carroll's Mad, Mad World, Catherine Nichols writes that Lewis Carroll’s Alice books are “the most widely quoted texts after Shakespeare and The Bible.” I was taken aback by that bold declaration at first. Then I considered a pop culture wonderland in which John Lennon declares himself the walrus, Batman battles a Mad Hatter, and Grace Slick tells us to go ask Alice, and needed no more convincing. That little girl who took a confounding, shape-shifting romp through a rather unpleasant fantasyland has been climbing through our collective consciousness for 149 years now. One year before that, Carroll presented Alice’s Adventures under Ground to its inspiration, Alice Liddell, as a personal gift, so this year actually marks her 150th birthday.

Naturally, Nichols’ discusses the fateful boat trip in which the artist formerly known as Charles Dodgson helped a restless girl pass the time with fantastical stories in which she played the lead role, but by page 22 of Alice’s Wonderland, we’ve pretty much passed the origin tales and moved on to the book’s main focuses: lavish images and how Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass have endured for a century and a half despite being a pair of books pretty resistant to satisfying adaptation. Nichols touches on the pantomimes and stage plays (one being a musical in which Meryl Streep played a 17-year old Alice!) and TV shows and animated, live-action, and pornographic films that attempted to bring Carroll’s world to life. She also gets into the curiouser and curiouser board games, video games, theme restaurants and theme park rides, tattoos, and toys that have taken Alice further and further from her literary roots.

If the text seems to sprint by a bit, the images will stop to you in your tracks. John Tenniel’s original artwork has inspired countless other artists, some of whom illustrated future editions of Carroll’s books (Peter Blake! Salvador Dalí!  Max Ernst! Ralph Steadman! Yow!), and others who used it as inspiration for fashion, fine art, head posters, comic books, and amusement park rides. You may end up looking like a Wonderland resident because the variety of Wondernalia vividly presented throughout Alice’s Wonderland will pop your eyes out.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Farewell, Ian McLagan

He pounded the keys with some of the best British bands in Rock & Roll history. Ian McLagan's career began when he replaced original Small Face Jimmy Winston, and continued barreling ahead when that band lost its "Small" and gained Rod Stewart. His bluesy yet joyful playing also gave a boost to Rod's excellent early solo albums. After Faces broke up and guitarist Ronnie Wood joined The Rolling Stones, Ian could often be found doing what he did best on stage (and on occasion in the studio) with the biggest Rock & Roll band in the world, even if he was doing his work outside the spotlight.

McLagan's story doesn't end with his four highest profile gigs. Dylan, Springsteen, Chuck Berry, Nick Lowe, and Frank Black are a few of the other incredible artists who've benefited from Ian McLagan's assistance. So did the former Kim Moon when she fled an unstable and dangerous home life with Keith Moon and found a calmer one with a guy who played in some of Rock's wildest acts.

Of course, we should not mistakenly cast Ian as some sort of perpetual sideman. He also had a long-running solo career since 1979's Troublemaker, right up to United States released just this past.

Tragically, Kim McLagan died in a car accident in 2006. Eight years later, Ian has followed her at the age of 69 after suffering a fatal stroke. We fans can still find a lot of joy in the amazing work he left behind, such as the intro of "Too Bad". Damn!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Hear The Who Sing "A Quick One While He's Away" Live This Past November 30

Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey promised to pull some odds and sods out of their hats for The Who's fiftieth anniversary/fiftieth farewell tour. So far, the setlists have still been pretty light on sixties rarities with the exceptions of "I Can See for Miles" (only a rarity on stage since it's one of their hugest hits) and "A Quick One While He's Away". That latter addition is the one that made me gasp, so I immediately went seeking it, and indeed, found the performance from their November 30 gig at Glasgow's SSE Hydro. It's a very impressive version of one of my favorite Who nuggets, and you can hear it below. Worth noting is that they do the whole song, complete with the full "Ivor the Engine Driver" section The Who usually halved in performances past.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Review: Siouxsie and the Banshees Reissues

Five years ago, Universal Music Company was still doing right by one of its coolest properties, reissuing Siouxsie and the Banshees’ original albums since 2007 with remastered sound, bonus tracks, and nice digipak packaging. The pop-breakthrough Tinderbox had come out in 2009, and the transitional covers album Through the Looking Glass was next. Then the reissue campaign stopped. Banshee Steve Severin, who’d been involved in these reissues, claimed that UMC lost interest because there weren’t enough bonus tracks to accompany his band’s final four albums to justify reissue. The claim seemed like a sketchy excuse, but whatever. The bottom line was that we would not be getting remasters of Through the Looking Glass, Peepshow, Superstition, and The Rapture.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Review: 'Batman: The Complete Television Series Blu-ray'

As you may have been able to tell from the bevy of Batman-centric reviews I've been posting here on Psychobabble this month, the Caped Crusader's 75th Anniversary has infected DC, WB, and other holders of Batman properties with a serious case of Batman fever lately. The crown jewel of all these wonderful toys is the release of William Dozier's brilliant live-action series on home video for the very first time. Why Batman: The Complete Television Series is only zapping into shops now is a complicated conundrum worthy of The Riddler, and it's been detailed elsewhere. So let's just skip ahead to how Warner Brothers did with this landmark blu-ray box.

Full disclosure: I have not watched every single one of the 120 episodes it contains. Doing so would mean this review wouldn't get posted until sometime in mid-2015. Based on the ones I've watched so far, the series looks better than it ever did and certainly better than its makers ever intended. You can count the bristles of Cesar Romero's mustache under all that Joker make up. Actually, everyone looks pretty heavily done up here with fake tans that probably registered as a healthy skin tone on crappy 1966 TVs. But obvious facade is a big part of Batman's humor, so it all works toward the show's grand joke. The primary-color palette pops like a bat-punch to the bat-face. Batman and Robin's capes look so silkily tactile you'd swear you could reach through the screen and snatch them off the dynamic duo.
One down note is that there is the occasional missing element, the most glaring of which are the absence of the tag at the end of the "Marsha's Scheme of Diamonds" episode and a brief shot of John Astin in "A Riddling Controversy". Most of the lost bits are bumpers announcing next week's villains that will probably only be lamented by the most hardcore batfans. (*Information about WB's disc replacement program can be found here)

We do get a nice array of extras, including a half-hour doc on Adam West that plays like a mini-"E! True Hollywood Story" ("Hanging with Batman"), a piece about tie-in merchandise with lots of toys and costumes to drool over ("Holy Memorabilia Batman"), a doc on the show's comic-book look and attitude ("Batmania Born"), odd sporadic video commentaries by West cut into the first two episodes of the series, a collection of dopey soundbites from cast and crew members of current TV shows ("Na Na Na Batman"), and a semi-celebrity fan roundtable discussion mediated by Kevin Smith. Funny, relaxed, and informative, that roundtable was my favorite of the lot. "Batmania Born" is the smartest retrospective of the bunch.

Most of these extras are notable for the participation of Adam West and the absence of his co-stars aside from appearances by Burt Ward and Julie Newmar in "Batmania Born" and very briefly in "Na Na Na Batman". "Hanging with Batman" and "Holy Memorabilia Batman" are marred by a tone too earnest for tributes to a ridiculously fun series. You might want to hit the stop button before a collector starts singing a sappy piano ballad about his toys at the end of "Holy Memorabilia Batman". Unaffected by such matters are a sampling of vintage tidbits that include screen tests and a seven-minute pilot for a "Batgirl" series that didn't happen. Inclusion of the 1974 PSA about the federal equal pay law starring Yvonne Craig and Burt Ward (and an imposter Batman) would have been a really cool addition too. It's not here, but you can always just watch the bad quality version on YouTube.

Finally, we must make mention of the boffo limited edition packaging, which is more notable for a very cool, magnetically sealed box complete with Neal Hefti-theme-song playing button than any of the trinkets inside. The grooviest of these is probably the Hot Wheels Batmobile, but we also get a neat repro set of Topps' 1966 Batman trading cards. A wafer-thin hardcover book of color photos is less impressive, but when all is said and done, Batman: The Complete Television Series blu-ray is not one of the best home video releases of 2014 for the extras and swag. It's the gorgeously restored presentation of one of the best series of the sixties that makes this a must own. You might want to wait for the inevitably cheaper (though currently way overpriced, for some reason), standard packaging release to arrive before spending your bat dollars though.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Review: 'Millions Like Us: The Story of the Mod Revival 1977-1989'

Paul Weller’s discovery of My Generation was a decisive event for a lot of late-seventies British kids. It was what sparked his obsession with long-dead Mod culture and inspired him to bring its style and sounds back from the dead with his own band, The Jam. That great group that fused the mid-sixties sounds of The Who and Small Faces with the contemporary speed and aggression of punk inspired a whole lot of other kids to kick their own bands into gear. By 1979, the U.K. scene was flooded with bands that fobbed off punk’s tattered fashions and nihilistic attitude for sharp clobber and messages of youthful unity.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Review: The Twilight Time Edition of 'When the Wind Blows'

The current generation may associate nuclear fear with the fifties and early sixties, but it was something we very much continued to live with in the eighties. I remember drills in which I was led out of class to squat down in the hallway with my knees against my chest, because somehow, this would protect a bunch of elementary school kids from a nuclear blast.

Review: 'Haunted Horror: Comics Your Mother Warned You About'

Craig Yoe’s Haunted Horror gathers choice stories from less-remembered fifties horror comics like Voodoo, Worlds of Fear, and Adventures into Darkness. IDW’s hardcover anthology of the series’ first three issues, Haunted Horror: Banned Comics from the 1950s, made a pretty strong case for these comics with their weird stories and weirder artwork. The next few issues gathered in a new volume called Haunted Horror: Comics Your Mother Warned You About aren’t quite as out-there, with stories leaning more heavily on clichés and oddly enough, sports, a topic that doesn’t mix well with horror’s dank atmosphere, and the misogyny of the bowling tale “Night Owl” is more repugnant than its predictable conclusion.

There’s still a good deal to enjoy in this latest volume, particularly in the run of stories that follow those blah sports ones. “Valley of Horror” gets things back on track with a motorist suffering from mistaken identity issues, Jack Cole’s classically morbid artwork, and a welcome dose of humor and imagination. “Dragon Egg” is like a collaboration between Ray Harryhausan and the Crypt Keeper. “Ghoul’s Bride”, with its Lon Chaney-inspired creature, and the vampiric “The Night of Friday the 13th” sport the book’s most striking art. “The Thing from Beyond” has its grossest. “The Improved Kiss” is a truly gruesome mingling of historical and supernatural horrors. The first half of the book has a couple of good pieces too in “Goodbye… World!”, a cuckoo tale of locust-sympathizing space harpies, and “The Devil Puppet”, which features what may be the most evil evil puppet in a long history of evil puppet stories.

Though these non-mother-approved tales are a milder bunch than last year’s banned ones, there’s still plenty to drool over, and as always, IDW packages these tasteless tales in lovingly tasteful fashion.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Review: The Twilight Time Edition of 'Flaming Star'

The things we expect from an Elvis movie—mindless joviality, pretty actresses, mediocre songs—arrive early in Flaming Star. Then just ten minutes in, shocking acts of violence transform it from an Elvis movie into a movie starring Elvis Presley. The title does not refer to a celebrity pop singer; it refers to the flaming star of death, and this western is nothing if not elegiac and serious as a stopped heart.

A hint that this might not be your typical romp with the King of Rock & Roll is dropped in the opening credits when the words “Directed by Don Siegel” flash on the screen. Siegel is renowned for dead-dark stuff like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Killers, and Dirty Harry. He doesn’t let any light shine in no matter who’s starring in his movie, and though Elvis is really part of an ensemble cast in Flaming Star, there’s no question who its star is. As the half-Native American son of a multiracial frontier family, Elvis is clearly the stand out player. He took his work on the film so seriously that he insisted the other unnecessary musical numbers Siegel shot be cut from it.

Elvis is Pacer. He and his family are caught in the middle of a war between white invaders and the Kiowa tribe. Depicted as craven, hot-blooded racists and rapists, the whites want Elvis’s all-white half-brother Clint (Steve Forrest) to fight alongside them. Led by Chief Buffalo Horn (Mexican actor Rodolfo Acosta) and driven by honor and the understanding that the whites intend to wipe them off their own land, the Kiowa believe Pacer should stand with them. The brothers vow loyalty to their family alone until another act of violence impels Pacer to take a side. 

Not only is Flaming Star unusually serious, violent, and light on music for a movie with Elvis Presley, it is uncommonly thoughtful too. The filmmakers clearly side with the Kiowa (and rightfully so) yet they are completely honest about the violence and tragic mistakes either side of any war perpetrates. That honesty extends to the way Siegel shot his film. He curbs the stylized strokes he brought to Body Snatchers and The Killers for a more straight-forward, more realistic approach in Flaming Star. Siegel works with pale daylight exteriors, dim blue nighttime ones, and shadowy interiors, making Flaming Star a sort of color noir without the weird angles.

Twilight Time’s new blu-ray of Flaming Star respects its muted aesthetic with fine clarity, depth, and grain. Film Historians Lem Dobbs and Nick Redman provide an audio commentary in which they discuss Elvis’s movies without pulling punches and relate how the relative commercial failure of Flaming Star ultimately did them a disservice. Interesting to my fellow horror fans is an extended discussion of how Barbara Steele was originally cast for a minor role that ended up going to Barbara Eden (who is quite good). The disc also includes original trailers and an isolated score track.

Review: The Pixies' 'Doolittle 25'

Like Please Please Me, The Velvet Underground & Nico, and Nevermind (which wouldn’t exist without it), Doolittle is an album that launched a thousand bands. It still sounds as disturbing, catchy, crazy, and uniformly perfect as it did 25 years ago—much less a product of its time than those other albums in its influential league. There is nothing indicative of the antiseptic sounds of ’89 in Gil Norton’s raw, organic production, though its original CD release was still in need of a sonic upgrade. Doolittle apparently got that when it and the rest of The Pixies’ catalogue was remastered in 2003. I don’t have that version, so I can’t confirm whether or not 4AD’s new triple-disc deluxe edition is an all-new master or a recycle of the 2003 one (and since nothing in the press material indicates a remaster, I think it might be safe to assume the latter). However, this is still a pretty must-own repurchase of an album that should have already been in your collection for twenty-something years.

Like all really necessary deluxe-edition excesses, Doolittle 25 offers ways to hear some familiar music in fresh and enlightening ways. While the original album occupies disc one, its demos on disc three strip away Norton’s barely-there sheen for an even rawer, even wilder Doolittle; not necessary a better version of an LP I already called perfect (and it can’t be said enough: Doolittle is perfect. It’s perfect), but a good idea of how it would sound on stage. Genuine live recordings can be heard on disc two in the form of a snatch of John Peel sessions that reinterpret some of the material faster, nastier. That second disc also includes all related B-sides, (many also in Peel performances) which are the best original B-sides of The Pixies’ career: “Manta Ray”, “Weird at My School”, “Wave of Mutilation UK Surf”, “Into the White”, and “Dancing the Manta Ray” (though I should note that “Bailey’s Walk” is probably their worst B-side). That these tracks are significantly meatier here than they were on 2001’s anemic sounding Complete B-sides CD leaves no wonder that at least they were remastered for Doolittle 25.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Review: 'The Who Hits 50!'

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only long-time Who fan who was initially perplexed, eventually exasperated, that the most over-compiled band in Rock & Roll was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary with yet another compilation. I was exasperated because The Who’s discography in the U.K. and U.S. is in such a bad state. John Astley and Andy Macpherson’s radical remixes were an interesting experiment in the nineties, but they’ve been the only versions of The Who’s albums in the West for way, way too long. In 2011, Astley remastered those albums, leaving the original mixes intact, for Universal Japan. Finally, The Who’s back catalogue was in shipshape with excellent sound, cool bonus tracks, and respect to the albums we old-timers grew up hearing. A domestic release of these expensive Japanese imports was what I wanted for the fiftieth anniversary, not another greatest hits.

Review: 'The Worst of Eerie Publications'

Here’s some sleazy business: as editor of Eerie Publications during the post-comic code-era, Carl Burgos would just collect a bunch of pre-code comics from obscure titles and have his artists redraw them with new details. That those new details were often primitive splashes of blood or eyeballs squeezing out of sockets was even sleazier. Because these comics were published in black and white and sold on newsstands, the code didn’t get to mess with them, so they could be as nasty as Burgos wanted them to be. And he wanted them to be pretty nasty.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Review: 'DC Comics: A Visual History (Updated Edition)'

Last week I reviewed Matthew Manning’s Batman: A Visual History, which told the story of 75 years of dark knighting through perhaps every issue of DC Comics to feature The Dark Knight and his multitudinous co-stars. Manning patterned his book after another visual history he helped to write four years ago. DC Comics: A Visual History is at once more ambitious and less ambitious than its Batman-focused predecessor. It is more ambitious because it has to cover so many different titles, characters, and genres, and less because that plethora of themes means it can get away without being so exhaustive. Instead of the complete histories of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, The Green Lantern, Hawkman, Hawkgirl, and the rest, we hit the major beats (no surprise that Batman and Superman still dominate).

What I found more interesting than these summarized superhero histories were the ways DC detoured from its defining superhero genre on a very regular basis. The comic mega-company isn’t just a peddler of capes, cowls, and anti-crime crusades. DC has put out a slew of titles covering a slew of genres: cute animal stories for kiddies, preachy religious comics for kids with obnoxiously strict parents, comedy titles starring Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis, ones based on properties as diverse as Hot Wheels toys and Sgt. Bilko, mushy romances aimed at girls, pimply teen comics aimed at the “Archie” set, historical comics, cowboy comics, war comics, horror comics—just about any kind of comic you could think of. DC even dabbled in pop music with a magazine called Teen Beat, which featured The Monkees on its inaugural—and penultimate— cover.

An all-new edition of DC Comics: A Visual History takes the company’s story right up to this past July, and is very much a twin of Batman: A Visual History. It too comes in a heavy slipcase, sports a pocket containing a couple of prints (one of the Dark Knight; one of the Man of Steel), and is lushly illustrated with covers. The format only differs with the inclusion of some very pretty double-page artwork spreads and a timeline that runs throughout the book to give you an idea of what was happening in the real world when Robin first died or Jerry Lewis first landed on the moon.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Review: 'The Rolling Stones from the Vault: L.A. Forum (Live in 1975)'

Ronnie Wood got thrown right in the deep end when he joined The Rolling Stones in 1975. He had a lot to prove as the successor of Mick Taylor, the most classically accomplished musician ever to earn official-Stone status. That Keith Richards was in deep with addiction meant Ronnie had extra weight to pull on his first outing with the band, the Stones’ first tour of the U.S. in three years. With Jagger at center stage it wouldn’t be accurate to say all eyes were on him, but let’s face it, Ronnie had something to prove. Based on his work in the new “From the Vault” DVD, L.A. Forum (Live in 1975), he did a damn good job. Don’t get me wrong, Keith can still play, but he keeps an unusually low profile at this gig. When it’s his turn to step to the mic for “Happy”, he often doesn’t even bother to sing. The majority of the solos fall to Ronnie. When the band leans into “Fingerprint File”, it’s down to the new boy to play the funky bassline Mick Taylor handled on record. Bill Wyman sure couldn’t be expected to play it.

Ronnie stands out on Live in 1975, but he’s still upstaged by spotlight-snatching Jagger and even Billy Preston, who almost seems to be vying for bandleader at times. Kudos to control freak Mick for allowing the keyboardist so much leeway. Perhaps he realized he could use all the help he could get considering Keith’s condition. When the energy starts flagging during the center of this two-hour-and-forty-minute show (there’s an interminable version of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” that utterly fails to capture the recording’s propulsion), it’s Preston who gets it back on groove with performances of his “That’s Life” and “Outa-Space”. From there the Stones ride out the show with a Greatest Hits onslaught that never loses steam again, right up to the transcendent, show-closing version of “Sympathy for the Devil” that finds Mick leading a conga line of dancers and percussionists across the stage.

Not all of Preston’s contributions are stellar. He could have laid off his annoyingly squealing synth on several occasions. Yet he mostly shines in this show, and it’s cool to see a concert movie that isn’t solely owned by Mick for a change. We don’t see much of him, but Charlie Watts really makes his presence felt during this mostly powerful set too.

Eagle Vision’s new DVD release of the L.A. Forum gig sounds damn powerful too. The video is less spectacular, looking a lot like an old VHS bootleg complete with washed out bars running through the screen. The poor video quality actually didn’t do much to affect my enjoyment of this disc though. I guess a good concert is a good concert.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Review: Glyn Johns's 'Sound Man"

Glyn Johns isn’t a household name for anyone but the truest Rock & Roll obsessives. His c.v., however, will blow the most clueless cat’s mind. He has produced, mixed, and engineered recordings for The Beatles, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Marianne Faithfull, Small Faces, Procol Harum, The Move, Traffic, Belly, Del Shannon, The Clash, and too many other artists to mention. While doing his most memorable work during the hedonistic sixties and seventies, he kept his head the whole time, preferring to fraternize with the era’s soberest players –Ian Stuart and Bill Wyman, for example—while putting in his hours with wild children like Keith Moon, John Bonham, and Keith Richards. Johns may be the only guy in the universe who could come away from a day’s work with Marianne Faithfull madly in love with the studio instead of her.

That clear-headedness is very evident in Johns’s new autobiography Sound Man. While his straightness may not always make for the most rocking and rolling reading, he has rubbed shoulders with so many greats that his behind-the-board perspective brings new angles to some old stories. Although he supports the theory that Mick and Keith were always really the producers behind their greatest hits, he admits to being impressed with Andrew Loog Oldham’s work on his first Rolling Stones session, though he doesn’t get too specific about what impressed him. Gear heads expecting a lot of production tips from one of the industry’s best might be disappointed. Johns aims for a broader audience and doesn’t skip over discussions of his most legendary gigs, such as capturing The Beatles during the tension-fraught Get Back sessions or working with Zeppelin on their debut. His minor recollections make these major stories worth retelling, as when he mentions that Paul McCartney wanted him more involved in the process than he was expecting or hilariously recalls showing off Led Zeppelin’s first recordings to Mick Jagger and George Harrison only to be met with confusion and disgust.

Sometimes Johns’s stories do elevate to the mythic level we expect from a Rock & Roll memoire. He reveals Bob Dylan’s plan to make a record with The Beatles and The Stones (!) and chillingly recounts how Small Faces’ manager Don Arden hired thugs to threaten him at gunpoint. Just as often he brings the myths down to earth, as when he describes The Rolling Stones’ utterly tedious recording process. Johns certainly pulls no punches. Pye Records’ A&R man Toy Hatch is “an unpleasant little shit with a massive ego.” The Stones’ “Sing This All Together” is “drivel.” Phil Spector’s version of Let It Be is “the most syrupy load of bullshit” he “ever heard.” So I guess what Sound Man lacks in Rock & Roll wildness it makes up for with a bit of Rock & Roll attitude.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Review:'The Batman Files'

Being the Batman is dangerous work. The dude may have survived uncountable scrapes, but his luck couldn’t hold out forever. He has even died on occasion (of course, no superhero in the comic book world stays dead forever…at least no one as popular as Batman). He thought Dick Grayson did an OK job as his temporary stand in, but not a great one. So Mr. Bats very thoughtfully collected all the information he believes is necessary to be him in a volume called The Batman Files. This over-sized, full-color paperback includes reams of Batman’s personal diaries, newspaper clippings about everything from the murder of his parents to the time Joker shot and paralyzed Batgirl and how he got that T. Rex in his trophy room, dossiers on associates and adversaries from Commissioner Gordon to The Riddler to The Mad Hatter, maps of Gotham, blueprints of the various Batmobiles and Batcopters, and other assorted Batmaterial you might need if you ever put down that damn bag of Doritos, get your ass off the couch, and don the cape and cowl so you can pick up where Bruce Wayne left off.

Originally published in hardcover in 2011, The Batman Files is a bit like two other Batman books I reviewed here recently that were also written by Matthew K. Manning. Like Batman: A Visual History, it’s a big, colorful, and canny canned history of Batman’s life and work (though this one really only goes back to the eighties when people like Frank Miller and Alan Moore made The Dark Knight real, real dark). Like The World According to The Joker, it’s a mostly first-person account of the life of one of Gotham’s most well known residents. The format made sense with The Joker, who always had a problem with keeping his thoughts to himself. It’s more unusual for Batman since he’s so famously taciturn. He really spills his guts in The Batman Files, so if you have no problem with the mythic hero getting slightly demystified, you’ll really dig it. It’s also a great, big, piece of eye candy with all its color artwork and moody black & white sketches (no one is credited as artist, so I’m assuming all of the art has been published previously).  Because it focuses on the most recent incarnation of Batman, which includes a lot of ugly stuff—like that disabling of Batgirl and Miller’s charming brainwave that Cat Woman used to be a hooker—I can’t say it’s a ton of fun. But I guess fun isn’t what contemporary fans want from their Batman. Frankly, I wanted to know what to do the next time King Tut got bonked on the head by a flowerpot.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Review: 'The Doors: Feast of Friends'

In 1968, Jim Morrison's buddy Paul Ferrara accompanied The Doors on tour with his 16mm camera in hand. He shot some footage of the band on stage at the Hollywood Bowl and elsewhere, Jim rapping with an Evangelical minister, and babbling while abusing a grand piano backstage. After the tour, Ferrara cut the footage together and laid over studio versions of "Wild Child", "Moonlight Drive", "Five to One", and "Not to Touch the Earth", finishing the film with a sixteen-minute rendition of "The End" from the Hollywood Bowl. Feast of Friends screened at a few festivals, won an award, and then went missing only to show up on bootleg in the ensuing years.

45 years later Feast of Friends is receiving its first official release as a Blu-ray from Universal/Eagle Vision Entertainment. Doors fans will find quite a bit to interest them on this disc, though not necessarily in the main feature. A lot of the Feast of Friends footage has crept out in various forms through the years, and that version of "The End", which constitutes about a third of the film, can be seen in more meaningful context as part of the Live at the Bowl concert film. The extras on this disc, however, are an intriguing lot, with "Feast of Friends: Encore" consisting of 34 minutes of outtakes that provide a more satisfying glimpse of Morrison's talk with the minister and a fascinating peak at the recording of "Wild Child". If great live footage is what you want, check out The Doors Are Open, a British television documentary that attempts to link the band with some sort of political ideology (and fails since the guys in the group have nothing profound to say), but rips and roars with some really raw live renditions of "When the Music's Over" (a song I generally don't care for but kills here), "Five to One", "The Unknown Soldier", "Spanish Caravan", "Back Door Man", "Hello, I Love You" (with Ray Manzarek on lead vocals), and "Light My Fire" from London's Roundhouse. The songs are intercut with disturbing period footage of police brutality and pontificating politicians. Finally there's a live performance of "The End" recorded for Toronto television before The Doors really broke on through. It is tremendously riveting despite the band's self-censoring of the song's iconic Oedipal pantomime.

On the video front, Feast of Friends is the only feature that has really been subjected to a clean up. Significant blemishes are absent, but so is fine detail. The other pieces are fairly scratched up, but you won't care as much since they're so much more fun to watch.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Review: 'The World According to The Joker'

That Joker. He sure does get a bad rap, even though more than a few Bat fans, such as your humble reviewer (that means me), find him more fascinating than the ostensible hero of Batman comics, films, TV shows, etc. Well, the Clown Prince of you-know-what is finally getting his chance to tell his side of the story with a little help from ghost-writer Matthew K. Manning (who has been a very busy boy lately). 

So what do we learn in The World According to The Joker? Well, we finally pin down the details of his childhood as the vengeful son of an abusive low-income dad. No, wait a minute. His parents were millionaires, and he was the product of upper-class neglect. Hmmm, maybe there are a few holes in his story. If nothing else, we can be clear that The Joker has nothing but contempt for peers such as The Penguin, Cat Woman, and Poison Ivy, and something approaching a crush on his caped and cowled arch-nemesis. Oh, old softy! 

Since our narrator isn't exactly the reliable kind, we get some bonus insights from the shrinks who've tried to break through his emerald cranium. Dr. Harleen Quinzel actually isn't much help since she's apparently just as smitten with The Joker as he is with Batman. Come to think of it, Dr. Jeremiah Arkham isn't much help either, since he doubts basically everything Joker says but doesn't have much to say about what he thinks the real story is. So we're left with a lot of rambling and raving as Joker cracks jokes, unveils fashion statements he rejected before settling on his iconic purple zoot suit, and boasts about his own wonderful toys: his joker gas, Jokergyro, deadly squirting flowers and joy buzzers, etc.

So you don't feel cheated by the lack of answers about the Joker enigma, the kind publishers of The World According to The Joker have sneaked all kinds of detachable goodies into its colorful pages: a genuine Joker playing card, a poster for a comedy show he performed before becoming a criminal super genius, a "Humdinger Laughing Gas" recipe card, an ad for Joker Fish, a mini-poster of the book cover, and all those skeptical post-it notes from Dr. Arkham. A spinning wheel depicting different ways one might kill Robin, a Where's Waldo-style "spot the Robin" game", and a real, working full-length mirror (for very, very small people) are not detachable, but they're just as fun as all the other stuff in The Joker's world.

Review: 'Scared to Get Happy: A Story of Indie-Pop 1980-1989'

The British punk movement of the late seventies was just the thing to flush out pop’s veins. But as brilliant as it was, punk had its limitations, and the genre’s most enduring acts—The Clash, The Damned, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Jam, etc.—quickly went in interesting directions that led them far from their lo-fi, two-chord origins when the eighties began.

At that very time, a new movement was born in Britain, one that picked up on punk’s minimalism and lack of fidelity, but didn’t necessarily share its sneering attack. If it was sometimes as nihilistic as punk, it was a lot more resigned about it. In years to come, this movement would be known as indie-pop and its guiding light that never goes out was The Smiths (who, like the original punks, absolutely worshipped The New York Dolls). While The Smiths’ influence is very detectable in many of the 134 tracks on last year’s Scared to Get Happy: A Story of Indie-Pop 1980-1989, and that title certainly seems to suggest a rather dour affair, you’d be wrong to think this box set was just a great, big, five-disc mope. In fact, there is a thrilling variety of styles and moods dancing inside this wonderful sampler. “Getting Nowhere Fast” by Girls At Our Best! is punk by any definition of the term. “The Jet Set Junta” by the divine Monochrome Set has a spaghetti western under taste and is as danceable as the best of sixties garage rock. Jane’s a cappella “It’s a Fine Day” is a defining example of twee. There’s psychedelia, Latin rhythms, hypno-noise, loungey crooning, jangling, jingling, and jostling.

The selection is also smart because while the point of sets like this is always to turn you on to obscure artists like Girls at Our Best! Grab Grab the Haddock, Close Lobsters, Gol Gappas, and Bad Dream Fancy Dress (who may win the best track award with their insane, genre-hoping freak show “Choirboys Gas [Hack the Cassock]”), there are enough familiar artists—The Jesus & Mary Chain, Josef K, Everything But the Girl, Pulp, Aztec Camera, Television Personalities, Primal Scream, Stone Roses, Inspiral Carpets, The La’s— to provide numerous paths in. Even cooler, most of these groups are represented by obscure early, demo, and live tracks, so there’s always something to discover.

The only knock against Scared to Get Happy is its allegedly innovative packaging, which requires you to pull required a visit to a YouTube video in order to figure out how to get the discs out of the damn box. Make sure you watch that video, kids, and be very, very careful. These are discs you do not want to scratch.

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